New Palestinian militia, Lions’ Den, behind attacks on soldiers, settlers

The new terror group in the West Bank became famous for posting videos of its attacks. Who are they and what kind of threat do they pose to Israel?

 Police arrest a man at the scene of stabbing attack near near Modi'in, on September 22, 2022 (photo credit: FLASH90)
Police arrest a man at the scene of stabbing attack near near Modi'in, on September 22, 2022
(photo credit: FLASH90)

Saed al-Kuni, the Palestinian gunman who was shot dead by IDF soldiers last week, was the fifth member of the newly established Areen al-Usood (Lions’ Den) armed group to be killed in the past few weeks.

Kuni, 23, was among a group of gunmen responsible for carrying out shooting attacks at soldiers and settlers in the Nablus area. He was killed in a pre-dawn IDF ambush on the outskirts of the city.

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As was the case in the previous killings of members of the Lions’ Den, the group published a statement on social media platforms calling on its gunmen to continue the fight against Israel. The group has also become well known for posting videos of its shooting attacks on soldiers and settlers.

Who was Saed al-Kuni? Palestinians are unsure

Some Palestinians said Kuni was affiliated with Fatah’s armed wing, al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, while others described him as a leading figure of Hamas’s “military wing,” Izzadin al-Qassam.

No one knows exactly how many young men have joined the Lions’ Den. It’s also not clear who funds the group.

A PA security source, however, estimated that the group has fewer than 100 gunmen from several Palestinian factions. “These young men have formed a militia that believes in the armed struggle,” said the source. “It’s possible that some factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad [IJ], give them money to buy weapons.”

The Lions' Den is a unique terror group - here's why:

The uncertainty over the slain gunman’s political affiliation is one of the unique features of the Lions’ Den, whose members are all in their 20s and belong to the post-Second Intifada generation of Palestinians. Some of the gunmen hail from middle-class families and are said to have purchased their weapons with their own money.

This is the first organized armed group that consists of gunmen belonging to a number of Palestinian factions – including Fatah, Hamas, IJ and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Last week, Palestinian sources revealed that senior Hamas operative Musab Shtayyeh, who was recently arrested by the Palestinian Authority security forces, was also a member of the Lions’ Den. His arrest triggered fierce clashes between Palestinian protesters and PA security forces in Nablus. One Palestinian was killed and several others were injured in the clashes. Some Fatah activists have accused Hamas of instigating the violence in Nablus.

 Members of Palestinian security forces rest following clashes with gunmen over the arrest of two Palestinian militants, in Nablus in the Israeli-occupied West Bank September 20, 2022 (credit: REUTERS/MOHAMAD TOROKMAN) Members of Palestinian security forces rest following clashes with gunmen over the arrest of two Palestinian militants, in Nablus in the Israeli-occupied West Bank September 20, 2022 (credit: REUTERS/MOHAMAD TOROKMAN)

In a direct challenge to the PA, the Lions’ Den called for “civil disobedience” until the release of Shtayyeh, who remains in a Palestinian prison in Jericho on charges of illegal possession of a weapon.

The Lions’ Den, which is based in the Old City of Nablus, was founded by 25-year-old Mohammed al-Azizi, nicknamed Abu Saleh, who was killed during an armed clash with IDF soldiers last July together with his 28-year-old friend, Abdel Rahman Suboh, who was also known as Abu Adam.

Shortly before he was killed, Suboh filed a request with the local Islamic religious court to separate from his fiancée, saying he did not want her to be heartbroken because he expected to be “martyred.”

Since then, three more Lions’ Den gunmen have been killed by the IDF: Ibrahim al-Nabulsi, Islam Sabooh and Saed al-Kuni.

Support for Lions' Den is growing in Nablus

A mass rally in memory of Azizi and Suboh earlier this month in the Old City of Nablus turned into an unprecedented show of force for members of the Lions’ Den.

Dozens of gunmen dressed in black uniforms and carrying M-16 rifles showed up at the rally, which was also attended by Palestinian activists from Jenin. Some of the gunmen, whose identity is already known to the Israeli security forces, appeared without masks covering their faces.

Speakers at the event praised the “martyrs” of the Lions’ Den and called for pursuing the armed struggle against Israel.

Expressing the rare alliance and cooperation among the various Palestinian factions, a masked spokesman for the group saluted former PLO leader Yasser Arafat and slain Hamas, PFLP and IJ leaders Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Abu Ali Mustafa and Fathi Shaqaqi, respectively.

Some of the group’s members said they were inspired by other gunmen who were killed by the IDF – including Nayef Abu Sharekh, the former overall commander of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in Nablus. Abu Sharekh, who also worked for the PA General Intelligence Force, was killed during an armed clash with IDF troops in 2004.

The Lions’ Den spokesman announced at the rally that Nablus and Jenin have “relaunched the Palestinian revolution against the [Israeli] occupation.” He vowed that the members of his group would continue in the footsteps of the “martyrs” and carry out more attacks against soldiers and settlers. He also threatened that his group would target Palestinian “collaborators” and “traitors.”

"Nablus and Jenin have relaunched the Palestinian revolution against the [Israeli] occupation"

The Lions' Den

According to the spokesman, his friends, unlike other gunmen, don’t waste their bullets by firing into the air during rallies and marches.

To drive this point home, the Lions’ Den gunmen often cover the barrel of their rifles with a red cloth. Their message: “Our bullets are directed only towards the IDF and settlers.”

“Shooting into the air is a deviation from the national path,” the spokesman explained.

The phenomenon of gunmen shooting into the air during celebrations and rallies in the West Bank has been widely criticized by many Palestinians. The gunmen have also been denounced for extorting money from shopkeepers and businessmen.

Who do they want?

In his speech, the Lions’ Den representative assured the shopkeepers and businessmen in Nablus that his group was totally opposed to any form of extortion on the pretext of “supporting the resistance.”

The Lions’ Den reminds some Palestinians of other armed groups that operated in Nablus and Jenin during the first and second uprisings, especially the Black Panther.

But unlike the Lions’ Den, the Black Panther group consisted of Fatah members who carried out several attacks against the IDF and settlers and was responsible for the killing of dozens of Palestinians suspected of collaboration with Israel.

With the exception of Musab Shtayyeh, the top Hamas operative, the PA security forces have thus far refrained from cracking down on the new group in Nablus. The Lions’ Den members have made it clear that, for now, they are not interested in a confrontation with the PA. The PA, for its part, is unlikely to go after the group, particularly in light of the gunmen’s rising popularity among the residents of Nablus.